Friday, April 20, 2007

The Ghosts of Rwanda

I watched the superb PBS documentary, The Ghosts of Rwanda two or three weeks ago; and I knew that I wanted to write a post about it. However, every time I started to write something, I would get a sort of writer's block. I felt as if I couldn't write a review of this documentary without (ab)using movie review cliches: "a tour de force!" "emotional and powerful!"; or (over)use hyperbolic language, empty of any real meaning "the best documentary I've ever seen!" "an experience!"

Therefore, if I can say anything about The Ghosts of Rwanda is that it is a film that mere reviews, in my opinion, or at least written by me, cannot capture this film.

The film documents in two hours the Rwandan genocide, and the international community's shameful reaction to the genocide. The film is a complete historical and political account of Rwanda, for example, there is a minimal mention of Operation Turquoise; the massive refugee movements after the genocide or that the genocide in Rwanda has had a direct effect on regional wars and massacres that followed. With regard to the reaction of the international community, that reaction is limited to the United Nations hierarchy and the United States; since this was produced for an American audience, the focus on the United States is understandable; and without a doubt, there is much to discuss, or rather criticize about the US government's reaction. However, the laser focus on the United States ignores other actors like France; whose government supported the Hutu power extremists. Therefore, this documentary is not the end, nor even complete, story of what happened in Rwanda. However, for the part of story it does tell, it does so in a way that focuses on the events at hands, and the underlining, political, social, moral, religious, economic connotations.

Global Fault lines
I just finished reading an essay by American thinker and essayist, Michael Eric Dyson on the OJ Simpson case/verdict and aftermath; he calls the case an "racial earthquake"; not because it created racial tensions; but because it exposed the cracks and fault lines.
In much the same way, this documentary shows how the Rwandan genocide exposed the fault lines of politics and racism that take place in our global society.

Race and religion are used in our society to rate people's worthiness. In Rwanda, it meant that black Africans were left to be slaughtered; while the international community did everything in its power to rescue white Europeans and Americans. There is a scene in the film, the first one showing troops with heavy machine guns guard the terrified looking Europeans to safe areas; where they will then be sent to the safety of Europe. After their nationals have been rescued, the Western governments stop talking about Rwanda; and if they do talk about it, it is only in the context of assuring their public that Rwanda was not their fight; and that they were not going to subject "their young men and women" to someone else's "civil war."
The next scene is at a hospital filled with Tutsi refugees; the media is watching them, filming them as they alternately clap, beg, sing, shout, talk to the Western reporters to ensure their rescue. The camera continues filming.
The film does not hedge the issue of race. There is no doubt that had the victims been Europeans instead of Africans; there would be a much greater international outrage and involvement. Just as if I think that if the principle victims of the Yugoslav conflicts were Christian instead of Muslim; we would have gotten involved much earlier and more forcefully than we did.

Midnight in the Hills of Good and Evil.
Even more than any political, social issue, this documentary brings up the issue of good and evil. We hear the testimony of one of the killers, who says that he was overcome by the devil. We hear the testimony of Romeo Dallaire, one of the few members of the international community who tried to do something to stop the slaughter; who talks about seeing the devil personified in the face of the Hutu power murderers. We hear from a BBC journalist who after seeing the remains of dead children in a Church they used as a safe house; who cannot conceive anymore, let alone worship a God that would allow so much evil to take place.
Yet, for all the overwhelming evil, there is good as well. There are tiny miracles, like a young girl named Valentina, who survived the Church massacres. There is an American missionary who after sending his family to safety, stays in Rwanda, and at one point, manages to convince one of the architects of the genocide to allow some orphans to leave the country. And then there is Mbaye Diagne. While the UN leadership has been rightfully criticized for their actions during the genocide; it is important to also recognize the individual acts of UN officers on the ground. Ghanan, Polish, Pakistani, Senegalese, Russian troops on the ground, and without weapons, managed to at times prevents the Interhamwe from entering the buildings used as refuge by the Tutsi population. Among them, Diagne stands out. He helped protect the children of the assassinated moderate Prime Minister; he saved dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lives by sneaking Tutsis out of the country. He was accidentally killed, by the RPF, when a shell aimed at an extremist check point, hit his jeep. And for this hero, they did not even have a pine box to transfer his body; so they had to make do with wrapping him in a UN bag.
Yet when we talk about good and evil; it is also important to remember those who stood as bystanders. And that is where "we" come in. Contrary to what President Clinton said, the truth and scale of Rwanda's genocide were well known from the beginning. The government allowed genocide to happen because Rwanda was not in our national interest. It was not an issue that would "play the heartland." They knew that there would be no political consequences from Rwanda. Even today, all that is needed is an apology, and the issue is suddenly forgotten about. And for some reason, we tend to get all in a tizzy over the sexual escapades that happened in the Oval Office; yet the actions of the US government during the slaughter of 800,000 people is seemingly not worth our outrage.

50 comments:

Owen said...

Interesting comments from Mark Doyle about the "conflict of interest" between himself and Diagne regarding the reporting of events at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/video/capt.html

Daniel said...

"...other actors like France; whose government supported the Hutu power extremists."

That's actually new to me. I bet French politicians who supported Hutu barbars sleep well, as these are kinds of people that have no conscience.

Shaina said...

The book "The Fate of Africa" has a very concise chapter on the genocide in Rwanda, and the actions, and misactions of the French government.

I can't remember all the details, and I don't have the book in front of me (I actually just returned it today!); but one incidents stood out to me. One was of a young French private who was sent to Rwanda during Operation Turqoise; and who remembers being shocked seeing village after village of dead Tutsi civilians; because he had been told that it was the Tutsis who were slaughtering the Hutus; when in fact it was a extermination campaign against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Here is an article from the Guradian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/france/story/0,,1987597,00.html

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